University: An Only Child’s Guide
by Verity Babbs | October 14, 2018
In my experience, only children are raised in two ways.
The first has always been treated as a child, the second as an adult.
The stereotypical Little Prince/Princess model of Only Child is a product of the former upbringing. I was the latter: my mother explained to me, aged 10, that I was essentially just another person who living in the house. (But not, like, in a cruel way. My mum is very nice, thank you very much.)
Growing up, the power dynamic between me and my parents always seemed entirely equal. I spent my childhood talking to them and their adult friends and work colleagues. (And my own, child friends – I’m very normal and well-adjusted.)
Being funny, I worked out, is one of the only ways to be included but not irritating in an adult environment. This is the reason I give myself for why I’m now a comedian, far more comfortable performing to pubs full of old men, than I was in first year going to college dinners with my peers.
I had always been very close to my parents, and given that they were both self-employed and rarely working on the same days as each other, we were almost always together. As a child, I would regularly have emotional attacks if I went to sleep-over at a friend’s house from missing them both. The Summer of ’05 saw me sent home from school multiple times following my becoming inconsolably upset about the idea that when I came home my parents would have metamorphosed into children (as sparked by the repeat of hit 2000 show, Big Kids, where the parents did just that). I didn’t feel comfortable going to sleepovers until 2016.
At 13 I became hideously embarrassed by both of my parents. It felt like if people saw us three together, they would see exactly what I was made of. When you have a sibling, you see that genetics works in mysterious ways, characteristics of either parent show themselves differently in each child – solidarity in the face of embarrassment. For me, however, I couldn’t bear the idea that someone could work out how not-normal I was because of my not-normal parents. It turns out, in hindsight, that my parents are completely normal, and no one gave a shit anyway.
And yet, I have regularly been the lucky recipient of the compliment all Only Children strive for: “You’re so normal for an only child!’
First of all, thank you. Because it’s true, there are some tell-tale signs of only children. There is the Gossip, the only child who loves to know exactly what everyone is doing at all times. This is a reaction against isolation.
Then there is the Lone Wolf, prefers entirely their own company. This is an acclimatising to isolation.
And there is the Invincible, the show-off (male) only child, who believes they are infallible and superior. This is a neatly covered up fear of isolation.
To have avoided showing the overt Only-Child giveaways is one of those strange compliments that leaves you confused. What do you think I’m meant to be like? Because although I’m not a screaming princess, being an only child has affected how I live my life.
I never had any interest in having a sibling. It wasn’t until I got my first boyfriend at 18 that I was able to see on a frequent basis the ins and outs of a relationship between siblings. I thought it was beautiful how they cared for each other and had been there together in times of trauma (familial strain, ill-health). It struck me that that was a relationship I would never experience. Having seen how a siblinghood can be precious and supportive (albeit true that I never saw their pre-teen physical fights, or teenage shouting-matches) I knew I’d never have an only-child family of my own.
But when I came to university, much changed. The presence of my then boyfriend alleviated my crushing parent-centric homesickness, and replaced it with a more palatable, him-centric version. Missing a boyfriend felt far more immediate and more acceptable than missing my parents.
And being an only child does leave you with interpersonal issues which could only have been solved by having to squabble your way through ages two to 18 with a sibling. When you have a sibling, you have all the opportunity in the world to fight over menial things – stolen toys, borrowed clothes – and then to be over it five minutes later. The problem I found in my adult relationships is that I can’t handle conflict. I never really argued with my parents, and always found schoolyard fallings-out incredibly stressful. Now I repeatedly argue about huge, existential issues with my partner which at the time seem like the most insurmountable problem ever faced. In fact, they are mostly pointless and given enormous importance by the part of my brain that associates conflict with disaster.
Without a sibling, and with parents who never divorced, plans in my life rarely changed. We never needed to not go to the cinema because my brother forgot he needed to go to football practice, and family holiday dynamics wouldn’t change when an older sister decided to go to a festival instead. I love security, and don’t know any other way to function. This leaves me with a binary headset: things are awful or excellent, forever or not worth embarking on. This might explain why I only semi-jokingly asked my partner to marry me five months into our relationship, aged 20. My Year 13 teacher coined my headset “Death or Glory”.
During my first year at university, I found it near impossible to convince myself to go to college dinner, to socialise with people I had convinced myself had already found their friendship group, and who would immediately recognise me as Other. This was clearly nonsense and I do have actual friends now, honestly.
I was very lucky to find first-year solace in the Oxford Imps, an improvised comedy group filled (in my first year) with finalists, Masters and PhD students, and Oxford locals. I loved this slightly-older environment, finding it easier to express myself without the self-doubt I felt around fellow freshers. I revelled in being the youngest Imp of that year, craving compliments about being good for my age, or good for my level of experience.
Being an only child had given me a desire for uniqueness, a need for qualities which make my (often mediocre) work special through its uniqueness. I’ve never had to compete with a sibling who, both in nature and nurture, was similar to me. Uniqueness is part of the only child gig.
Only childhood shapes the lives of the sibling-less in both apparent and hidden ways. Even the “normal” ones. On the other hand, there may be well be other only children who haven’t got an article-worth of self-psychoanalysis and bad experiences with the CBBC show Big Kids. I wouldn’t know.
Verity Babbs is an ISIS columnist.